Southern Arizona is blessed with diversity; high mountains, lush deserts, grasslands, multiple cultures, and incredible biological diversity. Even the occasional jaguar is still sighted every year or so, usually a male roaming up from Mexico, sadly in search of new mates that don't exist.
Several small mountain ranges dot the southeastern corner or Arizona. They are high enough and cool enough to contain lush pine forests, while surrounded by desert and grasslands. These isolated patches of cool forest are commonly called "sky islands", a perfectly descriptive name.
One of those islands is the Santa Rita mountains, located about 35 miles south of Tucson, and about 25 miles north of the Mexican border. This range is capped by Mount Wrightson, 9453 feet.
Hiking Mount Wrightson is a great escape from the desert heat, and can be one of the best workouts in Arizona. It's just over 4000 vertical feet from the Madera Canyon trailhead to the summit, and it can be covered in 5.4 miles if you use the Old Baldy Trail. You can also use the Super Trail, which gets to the summit in a less steep 8 miles. These two trail cross at Josephine Saddle, at 7000 feet, allowing you a chance to mix and match the trails to your liking.
On a recent trip with my daughter Megan, we made a short film of our hike, called Contrast. On that trip we were lucky to see a White Nosed Coati scamper along the hiilside as we prepared dinner at Baldy Saddle. In many years of hiking in southern Arizona, I've seen Coatis only twice - on this trip and once on Baboquivari. You are likely to see numerous bird watchers on the lower portions of any of these trails. Madera Canyon is a world famous birding spot, and home to the Elegant Trogon, a gorgeous bird which I have seen on the lower slopes below Josephine Saddle.
I prefer to use the Old Baldy Trail because it is less exposed to the sun, and stays on the moist north facing slopes most of the way. And because I like the steep and fast ascent.
Though usually done as a day hike, Mount Wrightson is also perfect for a one night backpacking trip. You can hike to upper Baldy Saddle at 8700 feet and camp at one of several decent campsites. From there you can climb to the summit at sunset, or the next morning at sunrise. Either is a great choice. Hiking from the upper saddle to the summit is about a 30 to 45 minute hike, covering the final 750 vertical feet. In winter this last portion of the climb can harbor a surprisingly large amount of snow, and some steep sections can also be very icy. Be careful.
Though there is frequently water at Bellows Springs on the Old Baldy Trail, one mile below the upper saddle, don't count on it. Carry all the water you need, whether on a day hike or overnight trip.
The trailhead is located at the road's end in Madera Canyon, at 5420 feet. There is a large parking lot at the trailhead. The Old Baldy trail exits at the upper right of the parking lot, while the Super Trail exits at the upper left. There are signs in the lot if you if have any questions about the trails. You will need a Coronado National Forest user permit to park. You can pay in a slot at the parking lot ($5 for one day) or get an annual permit at one of many locations in Tucson.